Column: Students need smaller class sizes

Terrence Martin
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Somewhere in Michigan a group of people from the state Capitol or the business community or somewhere else is sitting in a room and making plans about how public schools are to operate or be funded. Sadly, there probably aren’t any classroom teachers included in those discussions.

And it’s a problem. Now more than ever, we need to be at the table when it comes to our future and the future of our children. Our state’s K-12 public school spending represents about 20 percent of the overall $53 billion budget.

2018 is a big year in Michigan. We will elect new leaders. What should teachers be doing? We should be attending candidate forums, listening closely — and also asking questions. Those questions should include: What are you going to do about large class sizes? How do you plan to address the inequity in per pupil funding? What are your thoughts on legislation to arm teachers with firearms?

Let’s take the issue of class size. The Detroit News reported in 2016 that a parent of a kindergarten student at Nolan Elementary, Kristol Philpot, complained her son was in a classroom with 55 other students. When her concerns were not resolved by the school’s principal, Philpot contacted fire officials about the problem.

“There are completely way too many children in there,” Philpot told the News. “It’s a completely unsafe environment there and they can’t learn.”

Phipot isn’t alone. Research from the Education Policy Initiative at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy revealed that many Michigan K-12 students experience very large core classes — with 40 or more students — but that some students are at greater risk.

Based on 680 responses from teachers across the state, Michigan Radio reported in 2016 that the average class has 27 students. Additionally, 69 percent of surveyed teachers said they noticed class size increasing with only 3 percent saying class size decreased.

Some states cap class sizes. Michigan is one of 15 without laws limiting class size. At least 23 states currently have policies addressing class-size reductions to a level below 20 students per classroom. The majority of these policies target students in the elementary grades. Fifteen states specifically focus policies on students in grades K-3. The remaining listed states either all include at least some grades in the K-3 range within their policies, but either extend the grades upward or begin at preschool.

This reality helps to place many urban public school district students at risk. Black students, for example, are disproportionately exposed to large class sizes across all grades studied. In the ninth grade, 26 percent of black students were placed in large classes, twice the rate for Latino students, and more than 3 times the rate for white students.

We are well into the Legislative session and neither chamber has taken up a small class size bill. But teachers have an opportunity to help frame the discussion. Our students can best succeed when they have the resources they deserve. It is incumbent on us to tell lawmakers what those needs are.

Terrence Martin is executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

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